THE B TEAM
by CHRISTOPHER RUZ
Chapter 3 – Operation Cold Shield
Port Said, Egypt
“So the little ones with the huge heads, they have an official name now.”
Squaddie Nyssa Zelman grimaced. “Doesn’t have much of a ring to it.”
“Such is bureaucracy.” Squaddie Adam Lewis was already armoured up and checking the breech of his shotgun. “And the big glowing asshole that shot me? He’s an Outsider.”
“What, he’s lonely and misunderstood?”
Lewis laughed at that. “You know Huang? He wants to call them all Xenos.”
“It has more of a ring to it than Sectoids, at least.” Zelman turned, holding her arms up over her head as the ready team checked the buckles on her body armour. “Hey, guys. When’re we getting something worth wearing? You saw what a close range shot did to Lewis’s chestplate.”
Lewis grinned, rapping on his sternum. The skin beneath his armour was a mass of scar tissue, but he’d been lucky. Had the Outsider hit him a foot higher, he’d have been dragged home headless. As it was, he’d spent a week in intensive and another three basking in a nutrient bath, waiting for his flesh to regrow. Now, straight out of the tank, the brass had decided he was ready for battle. Not just that – they’d pinned pips on his shoulder as well. Now he was an Assault Specialist, Squaddie rank, which sounded no better than a cabin boy to Lewis’s ears.
Zelman had taken a step up the ranks as well. The rifle she was carrying was taller than her, bolt action, scoped out to half a kilometre. Sniper Specialist Zelman. It sounded good, Lewis thought. Tough. Not the sort of name you’d ask out to coffee, though. Then again, he’d met a whole long line of intelligent, attractive women since arriving at XCOM, and every one of them scared him as much or more than the Sectoids.
The readyman finished buckling Zelman’s armour into place. “Good to go,” he said. “And I hear the research department is pumping something through. Carapace shielding. I’ve played with a prototype, but you guys might have the finished product by next mission.” He slapped Zelman and Lewis on their shoulders in turn. “Good luck. Bring me back a pyramid!”
The Skyranger’s jets were already revving up. Two other soldiers were waiting, strapped into their seats. Lewis knew the younger of the two men – Michael Richardson, a heavy weapons specialist, three day stubble and brown hair swept back across his forehead. The kid looked scared, but not so scared he that he’d run. Good enough.
The other, he hadn’t met properly. He’d passed the guy in the barracks the day before but hadn’t had time to say hello – too many new faces these days, too many introductions. Tough looking son-of-a-bitch, boxer’s chin and a piercing through his right eyebrow. He had that slit-eyed expression like he was measuring everybody up at once. Fair enough, Lewis thought, seeing as he was doing the same.
He held out his hand in greeting. “Lewis. Squaddie, Assault-”
“Hey, buddy.” The other man took his hand and shook hard enough to snap Lewis’s arm off at the shoulder. “I heard about you. Back from the dead, huh?”
“Weeeeeell…” Lewis grinned. “They do good work in medical.”
“You’re ready to fight, though?”
“Can’t say no, can I?” He peered at the man’s chest, reading his nametag. “Adam Rudd, huh. Two Adams in the same ship has to be good luck.”
Rudd didn’t smile. “Sergeant Rudd, actually.”
Lewis’s smile fell away. “Uh. Sorry, sir.”
There was a pause. The back tray of the Skyranger creaked up and locked in position. Then Rudd started laughing. “Shit, man! I’m just playing around. People call me Santa.”
Across the other side of the craft, Zelman raised one eyebrow. “Santa?”
Rudd tapped the pack strapped to his side. Lewis could just see a heap of medical equipment peeking from beneath the fold of his satchel. “Because I bring the presents to all the good boys and girls.”
“You’re one twisted man,” Zelman said, settling back with her hands behind her head. “Wake me when we’re in Egypt.”
The Skyranger tilted, shuddered, adjusted, and lifted smoothly into the skies. They were off.
If Squaddie Nyssa Zelman had to summarise Egypt in one word: hot. In three words: hot as balls.
They’d landed two hundred meters outside a construction site where, according to reports, multiple X-rays had been seen yanking and bagging bricklayers on the way home from shift. The area had been evacuated, which only left a sweep-and-clear.
Zelman would’ve preferred they nuke the site from orbit. It was a dusty hell-hole, wind sweeping down the streets and filling her eyes with grit. The street stank of dog shit and the so-called construction site looked like a third world derelict. Three stories of bare concrete, scattered brick and scrappy graffiti.
Even so, it felt good to be off the Skyranger and in the combat zone. She couldn’t explain why, but the two weeks she’d spent on base learning her way around her new rifle had been hellish. She flinched every time a siren sounded, and the nightmares crept in the moment she closed her eyes. On repeat, every night, in high-definition surround sound, she saw the grenade erupt beneath the feet of the two greys in the supermarket, and as the fire enveloped them she saw they weren’t greys at all but Rookies Chi and White, torn apart by shrapnel. She saw the true greys lifting their weapons, plasma igniting the air overhead.
In her dreams, she never ducked fast enough.
But now, on the ground, with that new rifle cradled in her arms (a Barrett M98 with conspicuous XCOM branding), she felt calm. Pure. On base, she had to worry about the walls being so close, about when she’d next be allowed to see the sun, about how to keep the anger inside. Here, she was paid to be angry, and the only thing she had to fear was not getting angry enough.
Sergeant Rudd… God, what kind of a name was Santa, she wondered?… took the lead, sprinting to the tall outer wall of the construction site and surveying the wreckage left inside, before waving the squad through one by one. Zelman found cover behind a heap of shipping crates and peered over the lip. In the evening gloom she could make out the silhouettes of an earth mover, a forklift, shipping crates and port-a-potties, stacks of bricks and sacks of concrete powder, but no greys.
Lewis was by her side, panting heavily, rifle up against his shoulder. “Maybe they got bored and went home?” He laughed nervously, the grenades on his belt jangling. “Uh, I hope.”
“Yeah, you wish.” Sergeant Rudd was motioning them to stay down as he crossed the open dirt and peered around the side of the main construction – a three story building, two walls missing, completely open to the elements. “He’s a bit of a cowboy, isn’t he?”
Lewis wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Just remembered. I did hear about the guy before. You know, cafeteria chat. He was doing peacekeeping in Malaysia when a UFO came down. Locked himself in his apartment with fifty other people and held off a three day sectoid assault with a bolt action rifle and a chainsaw.”
“You believe that?”
“Not a word.”
Rudd was coming back, rifle at the ready. “Okay, back way is clear. We’ll head along the east wall of the compound. Zelman, set up a covering position behind those bricks. Lewis, Richardson, up front.”
Zelman snapped the bipod on her rifle into position. Sergeant Rudd might’ve been snappy, but it was good to be getting orders. It narrowed her responsibilities down to a tight focus – stay in cover, shoot the bad guys, don’t get killed. She swept back and forth across the empty site as Richardson took the lead, his massive LMG swinging from his shoulder holster, Lewis and Rudd close behind. They were slinking along the rightmost wall, pressed against the concrete, and just as the three men moved out of sight behind a shipping container…
A flash of grey in the shadows of a distant crate.
“Contact!” Zelman shouted, and fired. The boom of the rifle filled her ears, but she could already tell she’d missed. The grey was moving fast considering its tiny legs, scampering like an eager puppy across the hard-packed clay. It had a friend, too. Keeping to the shadows, weapon in hand, plasma boiling from thin vents.
She couldn’t see the rest of the team from where she was stationed. “Contacts!” she called again. “Two, moving in fast! Can’t you-”
The rapid thud of gunfire echoed off the steel crates. She heard Rudd screaming.
For a moment she was frozen, caught behind her cover, the rifle heavy in her hands. She’d been told to stay put less than two minutes before, and now…
More gunshots. The chatter of rifle fire.
“Fuck it,” Zelman growled, and ran.
She crossed the open ground between her pile of bricks and a yellow forklift, abandoned with its forks still held high, keys dangling in the ignition. She could see the other three now, pinned against the east wall of the compound, Lewis behind a port-a-potty and Santa on the ground, firing in steady bursts. The two greys were less than fifty meters away, secure behind a line of pile of steel rebar, but as Zelman watched one poked its ballooning head over the top and was neatly clipped by one of Rudd’s wild shots. The grey tumbled back out of cover, gun slipping from its long, slim fingers.
Zelman was fuelled by instinct. Her rifle was too long, too cumbersome for this sort of range. Instead, she drew her pistol from her belt holster, squinted, and fired. Two shots in the grey’s gut put it down for good, but the other was still moving, crawling on its belly behind the rebar.
“Lost it!” she called, and that was when Lewis rounded his port-a-potty at a sprint. The Squaddie roared as he crossed the stretch of open soil, and even as the second grey was scrambling to bring its weapon to bear, Lewis thrust his shotgun over the pile of rebar and fired.
The shell casing bounced off the pebbles with a metallic ting. Lewis panted, sweat running from his forehead. “Fucker,” he spat. “Zelman, you alright?”
“Fine, damn it, I’m fine! Check your corners!” Zelman pressed against the side of the forklift, her breath coming fast and heavy. “There’s gonna be more. There’s always more!”
It was like the universe enjoyed proving her right. Lewis was still pumping another slug into the chamber when two more squat shapes skittered from the darkness at the far end of the site. “Down!” she cried, just as green fire lashed out of the black.
Lewis was smacked to the ground like the hand of God had slapped him head over heels. “I’m good, I’m all good!” he called, but Zelman could see he wasn’t. There was a hole in the back of his armour the size of her fist, and the smoke rising from it was black and sickly. She could smell the barbecued pork tang of plasma-fried flesh. Despite the wound, he was clawing his way to his feet. “I’m okay, just shoot the bastards!”
There wasn’t time to draw a bead on the greys with her rifle – her sidearm would have to do. Zelman sighted and slammed the trigger back. On the far side of the shipping containers, Richardson was laying down a steady stream of fire with his LMG, the roar of his weapon echoing off the steel tankers and reverberating between concrete sheeting. It rattled Zelman’s teeth in her jaw, but she kept her aim steady. “They’re falling back,” she called, “they’re falling-”
It came from behind. A flash of light at the edge of her vision, leaping out of the furthest reaches of the construction site, a shadowed corner she’d never considered a threat until that moment. The corner that Rudd had peered at ten minutes before and declared clear.
She had a moment of deja-vu, clear and piercing. I’ve been here before. This is just my dreams. Nothing to worry about.
Then pain, and fire, and black.
Squaddie Richardson was hosing the two greys, his LMG bucking and chattering in his gloved hands, when he saw Zelman fall. They were separated by twenty meters of open ground and a forklift, but through the cabin glass he saw the plasma splash across her torso, throwing her hard against the forklift door. Then she tumbled, fell, and vanished from sight.
Richardson wanted to scream but he didn’t take his finger off the trigger. “Sergeant, Zelman’s down! Sarge, she-”
More fire flew past, close enough to burn the whiskers from Richardson’s cheeks. Lewis was pressed up against the back of the port-a-potty, shotgun across his knees, fumbling shells into the breech. “Oh fuck,” he whispered, one shell slipping from his fingers. “Fuck! Is she okay? Oh God, oh God-”
“I need support, Lewis!”
Lewis didn’t reply. The man was gone. His pupils were tiny, terrified flecks, and if he’d even heard Richardson shouting he gave no sign. The squaddie rounded from his cover, pumped his shotgun and fired blindly into the dark. Empty shells bounced on the dirt. “Fuck you!” Lewis screamed. Spittle flew from his lips. “Fuck you, fucking die!”
It was Sergeant Rudd, in the end, who got his sights on the two greys. He crouched low, sighted, exhaled, and fired. The first sectoid spun around at the impact, skull shattering as it hit the floor. The second ran back into the dark, the green glow of its weapon shimmering like a tracer trail.
Richardson popped the magazine on his LMG and reloaded with shaking hands. “Nice shot, Sergeant.”
Rudd licked his lips. “Awesome. You watch up ahead, I’ll check Zelman.”
“You need backup?”
“I’m all good,” Rudd insisted. “Take care of Lewis.”
Richardson swallowed hard and backed against the outer wall of the site, watching the shadows, the weight of the LMG almost overwhelming. Beside him, Lewis was starting to calm. He cradled his shotgun like a lover. “Is she okay?” Lewis whispered. “She’s okay, right?”
Thirty seconds later, Sergeant Rudd was back. Richardson could see from the set of his shoulders that everything was not okay. “How bad?”
“Bad enough.” Rudd didn’t meet Richardson’s eyes. “We’ve got one in the building up ahead and at least one sheltering in the rubble on the north-west flank. What’re you going to do about it?”
Richardson could barely bring himself to speak. “Get it done, sir.”
This wasn’t Richardson’s first excursion out of base. He’d accompanied rookies Huang, Wise and Shephard on their first callout to a convenience store in Pasadena, and he’d killed there, although from such a distance that he hadn’t seen the impact of his fire. They’d rewarded him by slapping a pair of Squaddie pips on his shoulders and shoving a machine gun bigger than God into his hands, and now he was on the front line.
But he had orders, and orders were to be followed. He made for the half-finished building at the back of the site, a three-walled prefab construction that looked like it was held together with spit and rubber bands. He moved fast, head down, and even when the whoosh of plasma sounded in the dark he didn’t take his eyes off the cover up ahead. Fire licked around his temples as he hit the wall running.
The X-ray was waiting, weapon still smoking green. Richardson didn’t give it the chance. His LMG bucked hard against his shoulder and the X-ray was cut in half, fingers still twitching on the trigger of its gun.
“Sarge, one down!”
“Watch left!” Santa was closing the gap with Lewis not far behind. “There’s still those fuckers in the-”
Richardson spun. The half-constructed prefab he’d entered was a two-story building, windows missing, open to the wind and rain. He had a clear line of sight up a bare concrete stairway to the second floor, and in that darkness he saw slick, black eyes.
Sergeant Adam ‘Santa’ Rudd was five paces behind Richardson when he saw the grey dart across the top of the stairwell. “Fire, fire!” he called, already pulling the trigger. Richardson opened up as well, and for a moment the stairwell was lit in strobe. Clouds of concrete chips filled the air and the whine of ricochets echoed in the black.
Then, silence. Rudd pressed low against an upturned plastic barrel, waiting for the smoke to clear. “You see anything?”
“Shit.” He remembered the weeks spent in Malaysia, organising the men and women who’d protected their apartment block during the abductions, building barricades and running buckets of fresh water up and down the stairs whenever fires broke out on the roof. The steady bang of his father’s rifle, slamming into his shoulder until he developed a bruise the size of a baseball, livid yellow like Saturn’s rings.
All he’d had to do then to keep the people moving was sound like he knew what he was talking about. Now, with Zelman almost certainly dead and Lewis barely hanging on to sanity, he needed that skill more than ever.
“Squaddie Lewis,” he hissed. “Are you paying attention?”
Lewis’s gaze darted around the construction site. His shotgun trembled in his hands. “Yeah. I got it.”
“Watch the left. Richardson and I will take the stairs.”
Lewis nodded. “Sir.”
“What’d I just say?”
“Watch the left, sir.”
“Good man.” He slapped Lewis on the shoulder. “Get it done.”
He crossed the open floor of the building with Richardson by his side, approaching the stairs with his rifle up, doing his best to watch every corner at once. The grey he’d seen run past had vanished – no scraps of flesh, no bloodstains. Just bulletholes stitched across the concrete, chips like golf balls taken from the stairs.
He motioned Richardson forward, covering the kid’s flank. They had to be somewhere above, he knew. The greys hadn’t retreated in Malaysia. They weren’t going to retreat here. Every one of the bastards was wired to kill until they were killed in return. But if they fucked up and one of them got driven out into the districts of Port Said…
He’d just reached the top of the stairs when he heard Lewis scream. “Sergeant! They’re coming!”
Rudd spun, just in time to see Lewis, still at the foot of the stairs, raising his shotgun to his shoulder. One of the greys had jumped from a window on the floor above, landing in the dirt less than a meter away from the Squaddie.
Lewis fired. He was so close that the X-ray didn’t collapse so much as erupt, leaving Lewis spitting slime. But it was the second X-ray Rudd was worried about – he’d seen it leap from the next window along, land in a spray of pebbles and skitter on all fours behind an earth mover in the centre of the construction site.
Rudd didn’t hesitate. “Cover me!” he told Richardson, and ran for the open window. Only one floor down, he told himself. He’d done worse in Malaysia.
It wasn’t much consolation.
He dropped, landing in the dirt with a thud that jarred his teeth. The grey was peering out from behind the earth mover, considering, and Rudd looped left, coming around the back side of the vehicle. It was still looking the wrong way when Rudd rounded the giant steel scoop and pressed his rifle to the back of its skull.
In any other situation he’d have demanded the creature lay down its weapons, but this wasn’t ordinary combat. This was an invading force, and the concept of taking prisoners could get fucked.
The X-ray turned. It made a sound like a hissing cat.
He pulled the trigger.
They swept the rest of the site, all the way to the back corners. Nothing was hiding there. Even so, Rudd forced Richardson and Lewis to do a second round, poking behind every pile of bricks and inside every port-a-potty.
It was a delaying tactic, and Rudd knew it. He simply didn’t want to walk back to the entrance, past the forklift, and the woman they’d left behind.
But, in the end, he ran out of excuses. “Site is clear,” he mumbled into his headpiece. “Coming home, Commander.”
Pournelle’s voice was hushed, husky. “As you will, soldier.”
He led the two squaddies back through the quiet site, over hard-packed dirt, past the earthmover and the concrete slabs and, finally, to Zelman. She lay on her stomach, where she’d landed after bouncing off the forklift. The hole in her armour was the size of a dinnerplate, and through that hole Sergeant Rudd could see things he’d never wanted to see. Her head was twisted sideways, and her eyes were closed.
She almost looked peaceful.
“Get the medivac team,” he grunted. “Bring a stretcher.” He didn’t look up as Richardson and Lewis ran off to the Skyranger. All his attention was on Zelman. The first of their number to fall, he thought. Almost certainly not the last.
He settled down into the gravel beside her body, and waited. “So it goes,” he said. “So it goes.”
The bump of the Skyranger on the landing pad jolted Lewis awake. He’d been napping, although he had no idea how he’d managed to drop off. Exhaustion had simply stolen up and shrouded him. He’d dreamed of green light, and pain, and…
Zelman. He glanced left, to the black zippered bag laid out against the bulkhead. Suddenly, the burns up his back from the plasma bolt didn’t seem half so bad.
Lewis looked up. Sergeant Rudd was staring, fixing him with his blue-eyed gaze. “What?”
“You didn’t kill her,” Rudd said. “None of us did. It was bad luck. That’s all it is, in battle. Good decisions running up against bad luck.”
“Whatever you say, Santa.” The back ramp was already dropping. Lewis checked the breech of his shotgun, shouldered it, and unbuckled the safety harness. “Merry Christmas to you too.”
Technicians were already at work on the Skyranger’s engines, hooking up fat fuel pipes, clearing leaves and tree debris from the air intakes. One of the techs, a kid with swept-back brown hair and a scrubby beard, stood back respectfully as the surgical team rushed in with their gurney and wheeled out the body bag. Then he peered inside at the blood running slick up the steel floor of the Skyranger and whistled through his teeth. “Jesus, what a mess, huh? Man, I’m really sorry. But, uh, you might want to go past the workshops. That new armour tech they’re working on, the carapace? I hear it’s already in production. You should go down, get sized-”
Lewis’s fist rose up, unbidden, and suddenly he had the technician by the throat. “Now?” he whispered. “You get it done now? Not yesterday? Not last fucking week? You have the armour ready now?”
“I…” The technician’s eyes bulged. “I don’t-”
“Lewis. Leave it.” It was Rudd, one hand on Lewis’s shoulder, easing him back. “The guy didn’t know.”
Lewis took one long, slow breath, and let the technician fall. “Yeah,” he said. “He didn’t know.” It hurt to turn and walk away. His boots left bloody footprints. “They never fucking do.”
– – –
Author’s note – for those that don’t know me, Nyssa Zelman is my fiancee. When I started this story and got her permission to use her as a character, I promised her I’d keep her safe. “No matter what,” I said, “you’ll survive until the end.”
Then, boom. Critical hit from across the map.
Never tell someone you’ll keep them alive through a game of XCOM. That’s the touch of death.
If you’d like to support me in this venture, why not grab a copy of my latest science fiction novella, The Eighteen Revenges of Doctor Milan?